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Palombo, S.R. (1994). Oedipus and the Sphinx: Triumph and Catastrophe. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 42:635-653.

(1994). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 42:635-653

Oedipus and the Sphinx: Triumph and Catastrophe

Stanley R. Palombo, M.D.


The downfall of Oedipus in Sophocles' most famous play, Oedipus Tyrannus, is the reversal of his triumphant entry into the city of Thebes 17 years earlier. The oracle at Delphi has told the Thebans that the plague will end only when the murderer of Laius is identified and punished. The unconscious collusion between Oedipus and the Thebans to ignore the unsolved murder breaks down. Told by Teiresias that he is the culprit, Oedipus begins a desperate effort to find evidence to refute this accusation. When other witnesses come forward, his cause is lost.

The effect of Oedipus's collusive interaction with the Thebans is balanced in Sophocles' account by the story of the riddle of the Sphinx. The Sphinx is a goddess of discontinuity. She represents the unconscious forces at work both in Oedipus's personal fantasies and in the collective fantasies of the Thebans. The tragedy results from the interaction of these fantasies in the government of the polis.

Sophocles' play thus exemplifies the intricate intertwining of the child's innate wishes and the reaction they evoke from the environment during the oedipal period. The neurotic patient's illusion of sexual triumph over his or her father or mother as a child can be best understood through the interaction of these factors.

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